Cultural transmission makes animals flexible, but vulnerable

Cultural transmission makes animals flexible, but vulnerable

Tim Vernimmen writes:

Just a few decades ago, even most biologists would have readily agreed that culture is a quintessentially human feature.

Sure, they already knew there were dialects in birdsong, and good evidence that many birds largely learned these regional songs by copying other birds. They knew that some enterprising European songbirds called tits had learned how to open milk bottles by watching one another. Scientists had even reported that the practice of washing sweet potatoes in seawater had spread among the members of a Japanese colony of macaque monkeys.

But these and similar behavioral differences between populations — ones that couldn’t easily be explained by differences in their genes or environment — seemed limited in scope. Compare that with human culture, which creates variation in nearly everything we do.

In recent decades, however, scientists have learned that culture plays a much more pervasive role in the lives of nonhuman animals than anyone had imagined. “The whole field has absolutely exploded in discoveries in the present century,” says primatologist Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, the author of a 2019 overview of cultural evolution in animals in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics.

Whiten was one of the pioneers of the surge in animal culture research. In 1999, he oversaw an analysis in which primatologists published their findings from nearly four decades of studying wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. “We could show chimpanzees have multiple traditions affecting all different aspects of their lives,” he says — from foraging to tool use to courtship. Similar findings followed for several other apes and monkeys. [Continue reading…]

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